Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shaking Off an Illusion

What would happen if a 7.2 earthquake were to strike Metro-Manila? Recently, the  MMDA (Metro-Manila Development Authority)  held an area-wide drill that included officials and  the public as well in order to address this concern and prepare people here for such an event. But was this goal accomplished?

Well first of all, according to official estimates in the event of such a quake casualties and property damage would be as follows: 38,000 fatalities and 100,000 injured. Out of 170,000 residences, 22,000 will collapse and 1,200, 000 people will be left homeless.

Yet even as an average person with no training in engineering , I can't help but wonder if these figures are a  serious underestimation. Here's why. For one thing, Residences here are overcrowded due to large families and widespread poverty. In turn the structures that they live in are likely to be unsafe  (which also describes many business buildings in Metro-Manila) due to  overworked, underpaid and hence  sometimes corrupt building inspectors--and many of the buildings may have never been inspected in the first place). So for example when a house collapses, it will likely fall on more than just a few occupants. Imagine that scenario involving thousands of such homes and of course businesses such as malls and highrise office buildings and condos.

Then there is the culture issue. Most Filipinos are not safety conscious. Instead the predominant mentality here is one of fatalism and which is expressed in the popular phrase bahala na. Loosely translated, this maeans "leave it to God". And as a country with a very high rate of observant theists, mainly Roman Catholics,  the tendency here is for people to pray for a favorable outcome through divine intervention, rather than take action to achieve it themselves.  For the most part it seems that they would rather pray than plan.

Another issue is the  the possibility of  panic and stampedes  in crowded venues during this strong temblor, and the looting that would likely follow it.The  MMDA Chairman, Francis Tolentino claims  that thanks to instructions and practice given in the earthquake drill, people would now automatically know to drop, cover, and hold. But will most of them really do that when the time comes?  A national trait in the Philippines  is ningas cogon which is a tendency of people here to be stirred up into feeling a strong interest in or enthusiasm for something today (such as earthquake preparedness) only for it to fade away tomorrow. So whatever lessons or advice those who participated in the quake exercise might have so eagerly learned that day may well have been forgotten or disregarded when it's "go" time.

And what is the status of preparedness  by the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to address looting and other forms of lawlessness following a catastrophic quake?  Are they prepared to enforce a possible executive declaration of martial law if necessary? 

The time of day and day of the week make a difference in this kind of disaster. Obviously, it's going to be a lot worse if it happens at high noon on a weekday than on an early Sunday morning. But a night time quake of this magnitude also has its own hazards e.g. when the lights go out from a likely power interruption. Imagine trying to locate casualties in collapsed buildings under these conditions. And digging them out even in daylight will be difficult given the state of the  art of search and rescue equipment in this third world country.  However, to its credit, Pasig City did conduct their drill at night complete with a blackout of street lights and street closures in some areas to simulate difficult conditions.

In the aftermath of intense seismic activity, providing assistance including shelter, food,and water to millions of displaced survivors could be a nightmare, even though post-quake evacuation sites have already been designated.. Look what happened in Typhoon Yolanda. That was over two years ago and some victims still haven't been adequately cared for. And unlike typhoons and other natural disasters, earthquakes give no warning before they occur. There would be no chance for lowering the casualty rate by taking cover,  preemptive evacuation, or running for high ground.

I posit all the above scenarios as one who like millions of others in the world  has experienced numerous earthquakes under varying conditions. Personally, I've never become accustomed to them and likely never will.  But I do want a realistic assessment from government  authorities of what will likely happen  in the event that a strong one should occur. Unfortunately, for those of us here in Metro-Manila, such a convincing scenario has yet to be presented.


Pinay Ramblings said...

Great post! I live in a high rise condo and the thought of a strong earthquake hitting Metro Manila scares me so much! It's really a disaster waiting to happen.

Secular Guy said...

PR, thanks for your kind words of support. One thing that I forgot to mention in my post--and the thought of which I hope doesn't give you additional stress--is the likelihood aftershocks, which as you know can continue for days after the initial quake. I wonder how prepared the authorities are for that probability.